Monday, April 15, 2024

It's Time to Ban Social Media on Smartphones for Children and Adolescents

 

In the May issue of National Review, San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge presents smoking-gun data that shows the manifold harms to children and teenagers caused by smartphones, specifically social-media use on them.  She claims, and I agree, that we have to do more to alleviate these harms, by government intervention if necessary. 

 

First, the harms.  Twenge has collected data on a wide number of measures of wellbeing including sleep patterns, socializing, indicators of loneliness and depression, and participation in adult activities.  Significant shifts in all these data have occurred over the last five decades. 

 

In-person socializing, measured as the percentage of U. S. teens going out with friends twice a week or more, was reasonably steady until about 2008, when it began to decline, and fell off a cliff around 2012, falling from 80% in 1976 to around 55% in 2021 for 12th-graders.

 

The percentage of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders sleeping less than seven hours a night was about 35% from 2003 to 2013, when it abruptly took off and rose steadily to 50% by 2022. 

 

The percentage of U. S. 12- to 17-year-old girls suffering major depression in the past 12 months was steady at 12% until 2011, and then went through a similar rise to almost 30% by 2021.

 

And the percentage of 15-year-olds measuring "high" in loneliness in regions as disparate as Asia, Latin America, Europe, and English-speaking countries all show a sharp uptick when?  Three guesses and the first two don't count:  2012.

 

What happened in 2012?  It was the year that the number of smartphone users in the U. S. crossed 130 million on its eventual way to the current number of 316 million, out of a population of about 330 million.  Also, the number of active Facebook users crossed the 1 billion mark worldwide that same year. 

 

Twenge, wearing her good-scientist hat, proposes other possible causes for these dismal statistics about teen wellbeing:  anxiety over college debt, the opioid crisis, even global warming.  None of them pass muster.  Her close study of the detailed behavior patterns of teens regarding smartphones reveals that the average U. S. adolescent spends nearly five hours a day on social media.  That's more than a half-time job, seven days a week. 

 

Anyone observing teens in the wild can confirm that their faces are stuck to their phones at every possible moment—in an elevator, walking down the street, at mealtimes with or without other family members, and evidently late at night too.  As for the other possible causes Twenge diligently considers and rejects, there is no such thing as mathematical proof in psychology, but she has come as close as anybody can to proving that social media use on smartphones has had a huge, and largely negative, influence on the daily lives of teenagers. 

 

Granting the validity of her case, what is to be done about it? 

 

Leaving teenagers in the gentle hands of the social-media companies is like leaving the hens in the gentle paws of the fox.  Some of the world's most sophisticated and effective AI software drives teens to keep clicking and scrolling on infinite websites, because the firms' profits depend on their doing so. 

 

Asking parents to control their teens' use of smartphones is nice in theory, but one would have to be a literal helicopter parent to do that effectively, hovering over each child's shoulder every waking minute of the day.  Yes, there is software to block certain sites, but teens know ways to evade such restrictions, and it's simply impossible for even highly conscientious parents to monitor and censor every last thing a child does with his or her phone. 

 

Twenge proposes a straightforward ban on social media use for everyone under 16.  While the brain of a sixteen-year-old has still got a lot of maturing to do, this age represents a compromise between exposing highly vulnerable young people to the harmful effects of social-media use and keeping them from using it when they are mature enough not to be significantly harmed by it.  While an outright ban is still in the future, a number of states (Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, an Utah) have passed laws requiring that firms obtain parental permission before allowing people under 16 to get social media accounts. 

 

In many ways, this issue has parallels with the way attitudes and laws concerning smoking changed during the last part of the twentieth century.  Once a near-universal social habit, smoking was first revealed to be a leading cause of lung cancer.  Then when we found that cigarette companies had engaged in a concerted effort to deceive the public, their reputation suffered further.  The banning of cigarette ads from TV and radio in 1971 began a general social trend that gradually changed smoking from a normal activity to one engaged in by a decided minority of people, but only after years of adverse publicity, revelations of corporate wrongdoing, and contested legislation.

 

Largely because of the profits involved, we can expect a similar battle over an all-out ban on social media for teens.  In this case, however, the people most affected can't directly influence legislators, not being old enough to vote.  It is up to parents and others concerned about the wellbeing of the next generation to organize opposition to powerful entrenched interests backed by billions of dollars.  And even if our small-r republican system of government was in proper working order, this would be a hard fight. 

 

Fortunately, protecting children and adolescents from psychological harm has not become a partisan issue—yet.  Both Democrats and Republicans can understand the need to keep social-media firms from exploiting populations who suffer harm all out of proportion to their numbers.  Twenge and her fellow social-science colleagues have given us all the proof we need to take action.  Now all that is needed is the courage and diligence to see it through.

 

Sources:  Jean M. Twenge's article "Ending the Tyranny of Smartphones" appeared on pp. 34-38 of the May 2024 issue of National Review, and relies on data presented more fully in her latest book Generations (Atria Books, 2023).  I also referred to data from the following websites:  https://www.statista.com/statistics/201182/forecast-of-smartphone-users-in-the-us/,

https://www.statista.com/chart/10047/facebooks-monthly-active-users/, and https://apnews.com/article/georgia-social-media-children-age-porn-pornography-007fae0a3b3f80393b4a7d7a7a8b430a. 

 

Monday, April 08, 2024

Havana Syndrome: Is It Real, and Who's Doing It If So?

 

For nearly a decade, there have been isolated reports of strange health problems in U. S. diplomatic and espionage personnel stationed in sensitive parts of the world such as Cuba, China, and Vietnam.  Although there is no typical case, there are some commonalities in many of the cases.  The symptoms usually have a sudden onset.  Victims describe hearing strange noises, feeling severe pain in the head and elsewhere, and other neurological symptoms.  Some of them have proved to sustain serious brain-trauma injuries and suffered chronic debility from the attack.  Some victims have been struck inside offices or hotel rooms, while others were outside—one attack allegedly occurred on The Ellipse in Washington, D. C. 

 

Of course, U. S. government investigations into these incidents have sought to determine several things, including (a) whether the attacks are real, or simply a product of psychological stress and conventional illness, and (b) if they are real, what is causing them.  The matter is complicated by the fact that diplomatic issues are involved, as well as national prestige. 

 

A recent year-long investigation by news organizations including the web-based Insider, Germany's Der Spiegel, and CBS's 60 Minutes revealed on Mar. 31 that there is strong circumstantial evidence pointing to Russian operatives who have been seen in the vicinity of many of the attacks.  Although no "smoking-gun" evidence such as hardware or caught-in-the-act scenarios have come to light, the Russians are known to be researching directed-energy weapons, which the U. S. and other countries have already deployed in certain areas. 

 

Directed-energy weapons work by generating powerful radio-frequency or microwave energy and directing it in a concentrated beam toward a target.  (There are also weapons of this kind that use infrared or visible laser beams, but those are easily blocked by walls and are probably not being used in these cases.)  Depending on the power level and the nature of the target, the results of an attack can range from simple heating to crippling damage in the case of a hardware target such as a missile, or severe physical injury in the case of a biological organism. 

 

One problem in trying to discover material on this topic is that no one who has a working unit wants to brag about what it can do.  Undoubtedly, many animal studies have been done in this area, but to my limited knowledge there is very little on it in the open literature.

 

Besides that, the U. S. government, or at least some people in it, seem reluctant to name names even if they do have strong evidence that, for example, Russian spies are causing most of the Havana-syndrome cases.  National Review reports that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said as recently as a year ago that they thought enemy action as a cause of Havana Syndrome was "very unlikely."  And Sen. J. D. Vance's reaction to the Mar. 31 news reports was dismissive, to say the least—he said it felt like "a lot of journalists have lost their minds." 

 

As a microwave engineer, I admit that this whole controversy inspires in me a sense of frustration, because the one thing that is true about directed-energy weapons is that they are extremely easy to detect, given the proper equipment.  Unfortunately, depending on the nature of the weapon, the proper equipment can be costly and inconvenient to use.

 

There are wideband radio receivers that can sense radiation ranging in wavelength from below the AM broadcast band (roughly 0.5 to 1.5 MHz) well into the microwave region (3 to 30 GHz, billions of Hz).  But if the energy is powerful enough (and it would have to be to cause the symptoms that victims report), the receiver doesn't have to be complicated at all.  A set of wideband printed antennas going to detector diodes monitored by a low-power (but well-shielded!) microprocessor could form an electronic version of the old radiation badges that used to be worn at all times by workers in nuclear reactors (and still may be, for all I know).  And produced in enough quantity, these units could cost under a kilobuck each, possibly much less.

           

The point is, if we are looking for conclusive proof of both the cause of these attacks and the fact that they do indeed occur, a fairly small amount of engineering effort would result in an abundance of data in case anyone wearing such a sensor was attacked.  This project would cost something, but the lives of diplomats and other personnel abroad are worth something too.

 

But no technical solution that ends up getting used by people is purely technical.  Someone has to need it enough to make it and deploy it.  And there are abundant indications that in this situation, as with many other issues relating to the U. S.'s relationship, such as it is, with Russia, the administration seems eager to smooth over issues that arise rather than taking firm countermeasures.  If such smoking-gun knowledge that portable directed-energy monitors could provide is something that the U. S. government doesn't want to know, the U. S. government isn't going to go to the trouble of looking for it. 

 

To my mind, this is a dereliction of duty to protect your own people from harm.  At least one diplomat resigned his post rather than run the risk of suffering an attack similar to what several of his colleagues received.  When things get this serious, it seems that any technical means available should be taken to protect people against these attacks, and getting hard evidence of them first would take us a long way toward that goal.

 

As more news about Havana Syndrome becomes available, political pressure to do something may change some minds in the government where it counts.  But for all the public knows at this moment, our diplomats and other personnel abroad are sitting ducks, waiting for another directed-energy-weapon attack. And figuring out what these attack are and who is doing them is the first step toward preventing them.

 

Sources:  The reaction of J. D. Vance and other government officials to the Mar. 31 news reports appeared in an article by Noah Rothman in National Review's website at https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/an-alleged-attack-on-the-united-states-isnt-the-time-for-snark/.  The very lengthy report on Havana Syndrome published Mar. 31 by Insider is at https://theins.press/en/politics/270425.  I also referred to the Wikipedia page on Havana Syndrome, which (unique in my experience) has been locked by Wikipedia management to prevent malicious editing until Apr. 19. 

Monday, April 01, 2024

Key Lessons of the Key Bridge Collapse

 

Some accidents are simple:  two cars collide on a freeway, a tree falls on a jogger, lightning hits a golfer.  Others require a chain of events, each of which is unlikely, and so are much rarer than the simple kind.  The sequence of occurrences, each one fairly harmless by itself, which led to the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore Harbor on last Tuesday, March 26 included things that by themselves would cause few if any major problems.  But on that fateful night, they all aligned to end four lives and cause what will eventually turn out to be billions of dollars in direct and indirect damage.

 

About forty-five minutes after midnight, the Singapore-registered container ship Dali left its berth at the Port of Baltimore bound for Sri Lanka.  Its route lay beneath the second-longest continuous-truss bridge in the U. S., the Key bridge, which carried traffic around the southern part of the Interstate 635 loop around Baltimore, and was the last bridge to pass under before the Dali reached the open sea.  On the bridge, a construction crew was repairing potholes resulting from the previous winter.

 

Some time after leaving port, the Dali began to experience engine trouble.  Security-camera videos recovered afterwards show that the ship's lights flickered on and off several times and black smoke began to come from the stacks.  As a recent NBC News report shows, contaminated bunker fuel is a serious problem in marine shipping circles.  As the giant propulsion engines are separate from the smaller diesel engines that run a ship's generators, and both were affected, some experts have speculated that contaminated fuel may have caused the ship's power problems, as that is a common factor that would account for both difficulties.

 

Whatever the cause, the ship's crew was alert enough to issue a mayday call by radio, which was picked up by first-responder officials, and they issued orders for traffic to be blocked on the bridge. 

 

Less than two minutes later, the now-adrift ship plowed into one of the two main "bents" supporting the highest span of the bridge.  A cloud of masonry dust can be seen on the video of the collision, shortly before the support fails and the entire truss structure breaks up and falls into the ocean.  Two construction workers on the bridge were rescued, but six others remain missing and were presumably killed.  While our prayers go out to those who lost loved ones and friends, the accident could have caused many more fatalities if it had happened during an afternoon rush hour with hundreds of vehicles on the bridge.

 

Several relatively unlikely things had to happen together for this tragedy to take place.

 

As it turns out, engine problems and failures due to contaminated fuel are not that uncommon.  Propulsion engines of the type used on the Dali can have up to fourteen cylinders, each over a yard (~1 meter) in diameter and with a stroke of eight feet (2. 5 meters), and the amount of fuel used is phenomenal.  So shippers are motivated to find the cheapest fuel around that will run the engines, and so-called bunker fuel is used.  It is thicker and heavier than the type of diesel fuel used in passenger cars, and because suppliers sometimes cut corners and mix adulterants in the fuel to cheapen it, it's not uncommon for ships to lose power from bad fuel.

 

We still don't know the exact cause of the power loss, but the vast majority of such events occur in the open sea where a drifting ship represents lost time and money, but is not otherwise dangerous.  The Dali had the bad fortune to lose its power in the worst possible place:  a few hundred yards away from a vulnerable bridge.

 

Why wasn't the bridge structure protected from such collisions?  It doesn't take a genius to guess that sooner or later, a ship might lose control and bang into a support.  Not being a maritime bridge architect, I can't answer that question.  As the bridge was built in 1977, it withstood nearly half a century of wear and tear from weather, traffic use, and shipping.  It's an open question whether the builders tried to estimate what it would take to fend off a straying ship colliding with the supports.  As there are so many variables—the size and weight of the ship, its velocity, exactly where it would hit—the designers may have just tried to make sure smaller ships couldn't damage it and hoped that the pilots of the larger ships would be equipped with radar and other navigational aids to miss the bridge supports. 

 

And until last Tuesday, every ship capable of knocking down the bridge succeeded in missing them.  But the unlikely event of a ship losing power and having just the right combination of weight, ocean currents, and momentum to wreck the bridge finally came up, and the result is as we see.

 

Again, we can be thankful that the main losses are monetary rather than in the form of injuries and many fatalities.  This accident could have been much worse, and the ship's crew and first responders deserve credit for issuing maydays and blocking traffic as promptly as they did. 

 

But for the foreseeable future, anyone wanting to drive around Baltimore is going to have to do it without the benefit of the Key Bridge, and until the wreckage is cleared, the Port of Baltimore is shut down.  As disasters go, this one was spectacular, but way down the list of fatal accidents compared to other mechanical failures that killed many more people. 

 

We can be sure that the next bridge will have more protection from ship collisions, whatever else is taken into consideration.  And this accident may shine a light on the dubious quality of bunker fuel used in maritime service, an international market with poor quality-enforcement mechanisms, according to the NBC News report.  These are good things, and while any accident is regrettable, the lessons we learn from them benefit the next generation of designers and users of the built environment. 

 

Sources: I referred to an NBC News report on bunker fuel quality as a possible cause of the accident at https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/dali-contaminated-fuel-scrutiny-baltimore-key-bridge-collapse-rcna145478, a CBS News timeline at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/francis-scott-key-bridge-collapse-timeline-911-call-dali-cargo-ship-mayday-maps-construction-worker-recovery/, and the Wikipedia articles on the Francis Scott Key bridge collapse and the maritime Wärtsilä-Sulzer RTA96-C engine, the largest reciprocating engine in the world.

Monday, March 25, 2024

GPS vs. Covered Bridges: Unintended Consequences

Every time a new technology becomes popular, effects happen that nobody anticipates—not the designers, not the firms selling the product, and not the users either.  A small but significant case in point was highlighted in a recent Associated Press piece describing the increased vulnerability of historic covered bridges in the U. S. to truck and RV drivers who blindly follow their GPS instructions, only to smash into the bridge superstructure.

 

Covered bridges were themselves a technical innovation.  According to the Wikipedia article on covered bridges, wooden structural members exposed to the weather, even if painted, will last only about 20 years before they need complete replacement.  In the 19th century, the European innovation of covering a bridge with walls and a roof spread to the U. S., and many thousands of them were built, mostly between 1825 and 1875.  Because they were usually built for local pedestrian, horse, and carriage traffic, the overhead clearance was typically about ten feet or less, well below the fourteen feet (4.3 meters) that is the U. S. interstate highway standard minimum clearance. 

 

Although most of the covered bridges in the U. S. are long gone, some communities have preserved them for historic and cultural reasons, and a few dozen are still used for vehicular traffic.  One such bridge stands outside Lyndon, Vermont.  The 140-year-old Miller's Run bridge provides a shortcut around the town of Lyndon, and many GPS-enabled smartphone programs such as Waze intended for passenger cars will route drivers through the bridge.  Despite several warning signs stating the low clearance of the bridge, at least 20 drivers of box trucks, vans, and RVs have hit the bridge in the last few years.  Sometimes only minor cosmetic damage results, but on one occasion a delivery truck hit the bridge supports.  That cost the town $100,000 and put the bridge out of commission for several months.

 

When the driver can be identified, the town can collect insurance money to pay for the damage, but many drivers just keep going, sometimes leaving air-conditioning units behind that are scraped off the top of campers.

 

Bill Caswell, who is president of the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, says this problem turns out to be a constant battle.  The only sure-fire solution is to build heavy steel height-limit barriers at each end.  But even when communities put up warning signs and flashing lights to inform drivers of the upcoming obstructions, many of them are still surprised when they hit the barriers.

 

Many of you may never have seen a covered bridge, and even fewer have tried to drive across one in a truck that's too tall for it.  But this problem is a good example of a widespread issue that philosopher and psychologist Iain McGilchrist has pointed out in his book The Master and His Emissary, and more briefly in a recent article in the journal of religion and public life First Things. 

 

McGilchrist is one of the world's leading experts in the differing functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain.  His thesis defies easy summary, but basically, one can think of the two hemispheres as two people with complementary personalities working together as a team to accomplish mental tasks. 

 

The right hemisphere is focused outward.  It is the one that perceives the world and admits its complexity and mystery, in the sense of being partially but not completely understandable.  The right hemisphere helps us to appreciate art, poetry, and the best in human relationships.

 

The left hemisphere, on the other hand, tends to simplify and abstract things down to only the essentials needed to get something done.  It is the brain's bureaucrat, ignoring subtleties and ambiguities, and sticking heedlessly to a task long after the wider-ranging purposes of the task are forgotten.  The left hemisphere can't see the forest for the trees, and McGilchrist's cri de coeur these days is that once more (after similar paths trod by ancient Greece and Rome), we are letting left-brain thinking take over our civilization, and are in danger of falling into ruin just as those civilizations did. 

 

When someone driving a rented moving van for the first time tries to get through Lyndon, Vermont, if he or she is following right-brain thinking, the thing to do would be to drive through the quaint old town, stop in and have a meal, maybe, and stroll around the town common, appreciating the flavor of a historic location full of time-bound associations and resonances of the past. 

 

But if the driver is dominated by left-brain patterns, Lyndon is just an obstruction on the way to wherever the goal lies, and in following that fount of efficiency, the voice on the GPS-enabled phone, the driver turns away from the town and heads straight for the Miller's Run bridge.  Perhaps the driver observes the scenery—the trees, the street signs, the warning sign saying something about a bridge—but the left brain discards all of this as meaningless and useless fluff.  The main thing is to cover so many miles in so many hours and get to the goal on the map.  In this way, dozens of drivers have plowed straight into the bridge covering, wreaking various amounts of damage and propelling themselves off an idealized digital map into the real world of recalcitrant lumber, damaged vehicles, and auto insurance claims. 

 

Perhaps the town of Lyndon will finally decide enough is enough, and erect two sturdy steel arch barriers over the roadways approaching the bridge so that even GPS-hypnotized drivers can't cause any more damage.  But these barriers will stand as a mute and expensive testimony to the inability of modern humans to embrace the whole of their environment, instead of giving in to a tunnel-vision version of reality simplified to a creeping colored line on a map. 

 

Or maybe, just maybe, the world will heed the call of prophets such as McGilchrist and pull back from the brink of disaster that we seem to be teetering on.  If history is any guide, though, it will be hard to stop ourselves in time.  And this go-round, we may damage a lot more than a few bridges.

 

Sources:  The Associated Press article "Historic covered bridges are under threat by truck drivers relying on GPS meant for cars" by Lisa Rathke appeared on Mar. 20 at https://apnews.com/article/covered-bridges-gps-truckers-accidents-906e3379e07b20dbcdbe16e7cf5e5d6d.  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on covered bridges.  Iain McGilchrist's article "Resist the Machine Apocalypse" appeared in the March 2024 issue of First Things, and can be viewed at https://www.firstthings.com/article/2024/03/resist-the-machine-apocalypse.


Monday, March 18, 2024

TikTok: Divest or Ban?

 

The online platform TikTok is once again in the news, this time the target of proposed U. S. legislation.  One of the most popular and innovative social-media outlets, the Chinese-originated and Chinese-controlled app's infinite-scrolling videos have been imitated by Facebook and YouTube, and 170 million Americans use it, many of them under 30.  So why is Congress once more considering legislation that would either force ByteDance, the Chinese parent company, to divest itself of the U. S. division of TikTok, or else face a total ban of the app?

 

The ostensible reason is that despite TikTok's public protestations to the contrary, it appears that user data garnered by the U. S. division of TikTok can be accessed by its masters in China, as I noted in a December 2022 blogpost here.  Whether ByteDance actually exploits this capability is not clear, but adding that to the fact that TikTok has engaged in a certain amount of censorship on subjects sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party's sensibilities provides enough rationale to consider legislative action.

 

In a recent essay in Time, reporter Scott Nover describes the bill that the U. S. House of Representatives passed on March 13.  If passed by the Senate and signed by President Biden, it would present TikTok with a choice:  either totally divest the U. S. division so that it is completely independent of the rest of the Chinese-based organization, or face a total ban on selling and using the app in the U. S.  Although the bill theoretically gives the firm a choice, several sources say that the true intent is to enact a ban, not just to force divestiture. 

 

As the only major social-media app not developed in the U. S., TikTok excites the envy of Facebook and YouTube, and U. S.-based social-media firms would be more than happy to see a major competitor eat the dust, so they could rush in with their replacement apps and fill the void. 

 

Never having used TikTok, I have only a dim idea of how essential it must seem to some teenagers.  In a clumsy attempt to prevent the bill's passage, TikTok urged its users to phone their congressperson to protest the bill.  Representatives were flooded with phone calls, some of which carried the caller's intent to commit suicide if TikTok were banned.  Many of the callers were below voting age and presumably unable to vote against anyone who favors the ban, but the campaign apparently backfired, as it demonstrated TikTok's overwhelming influence with its users more than a principled regard for free speech on their part. 

 

Nover, for his part, thinks that even if the bill becomes law, it will quickly become entangled in court cases, and the record for similar bans at the state level in the courts is not good.  Former President Trump's attempt to ban TikTok by executive action was thwarted by a court, which said there were other ways to achieve the same ends.  So just passing Federal legislation that would effectively ban TikTok won't necessarily mean an uptick in teen suicides, although that possibility can't be discounted.

 

The U. S. government has decidedly mixed motives in its move to ban TikTok, as it would be a big favor to U. S.-based social media firms.  To that extent, the proposed law smells of crony capitalism, which uses government influence to suppress competition.  There are those who take the view that as long as users get better, cheaper services, it doesn't matter whether those services come from a multitude of small firms or from one giant firm.  In other words, bigness isn't a sin, just incompetence or exploitation.  That is an economic debate for another day, but it can't be ignored in the mix of motives that gave rise to the proposed TikTok ban.

 

It's still a theoretical possibility that TikTok would actually divest itself of its U. S. division, but as I said in previous blogs, such things can be mainly on paper rather than in reality.  One thinks of the breakup of Ma Bell, which cut the nationwide giant phone company into regional Baby Bells.  But a few years after the telecommunications landscape opened up to competition, AT&T found few obstacles on its way to reuniting itself, and continues to be a major player in that field today. 

 

Another problem with the proposed bill is that we don't have a smoking gun.  No one has come up with hard evidence that China is definitely exploiting its ability to suck data on its U. S. users into Beijing for nefarious purposes.  But the Chinese are very skillful at concealing their espionage activities and their consequences—that is what good spies do. 

 

To give a completely undocumented but likely example I'm personally familiar with, a few years ago a student employee of mine wanted to get a circuit board design he had developed turned into an actual circuit board.  This is done by sending a digital file to a circuit-board-fab company, which etches and drills the board and sends it back to you.  He looked around to find various prices from different vendors.  An outfit in Colorado wanted $50, another one here in Texas wanted $40 or along there—and a place based in China offered three-day turnaround for something ridiculously cheap, like $12.  I let him use the Chinese $12 vendor, but not without wondering whether that firm and others like it were deeply subsidized by the Chinese government for the purposes of obtaining the raw circuit-board files from thousands of U. S. firms, all without sending a single spy to the U. S.  Maybe all this is a fantasy of mine, but I don't think so.  It was all perfectly legal and probably very effective for the Chinese too.

 

To my mind, the best outcome of the anti-TikTok legislation would be divestiture rather than a total ban. If the federal government shuts down a social-media app with 170 million U. S. users, that is truly a heavy hand placed on First Amendment rights of ordinary citizens to express their opinions.  But even if the ban is attempted, the courts may well have something to say about the matter, so we will just have to stay tuned. 

 

Sources:  I referred to the article "The Grim Reality of Banning TikTok" on the Time website at https://time.com/6952889/tiktok-ban-freedom-of-speech-essay/ and an article in National Review at https://www.nationalreview.com/the-weekend-jolt/what-it-took-for-republicans-to-break-with-trump/.  My previous blogs on TikTok are at https://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/2022/12/time-is-running-out-on-tiktok-in-u-s.html

and

https://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/2022/09/tiktok-and-chinese-connection.html.

 

Monday, March 11, 2024

Will Banning Minors from Social Media Break the Internet?

 

Charles C. W. Cooke seems to think so.  Cooke, a writer for National Review whose opinions and style I have great respect for, opines in the April 2024 issue that using Federal power to keep minors off social media is a bad idea. 

 

He concedes there is a real problem:  bullying, pornography use, depression, and suicide are all results of teenagers and even younger people accessing social media.  He doesn't dispute that on balance, the harm that can happen is probably not worth the benefits that the youngsters gain.  The problem is acute enough to show up in strange places such as the comics page.  The strip "Baldo" by Hector Cantu and Carolos Castellanos portrays a nearly-nuclear Hispanic family that includes a precocious young girl named Gracie., who appears to be about 8.  Recently, the writers chose to show Gracie taking out a cigarette lighter, lighting up, taking a puff, and in the last frame she had a mobile phone in her hand instead of a cigarette.  The message, somewhat crudely but shockingly expressed, is that if you hand your eight-year-old a mobile phone, you might as well let her smoke too.

 

And the comparison between smoking and mobile-phone-mediated social media is apt in another way.  The social ostracism that many smokers now experience, at least in the U. S., came about as the U. S. government adopted severe restrictions on cigarette advertising and sales.  It's somewhat of a chicken-and-egg argument as to whether federal restrictions encouraged the change in social attitude, or the social attitude made the government's job easier.  But as the hypocrisy of the cigarette companies was exposed, revealing that they knew very well tobacco killed their customers but went right on selling it as though nothing was wrong, I think public opinion simply turned against them, especially among young people.  But the federal strictures helped the process along.

 

Cooke's main concern is that allowing the federal government to get its grubby, incompetent mitts on what is up to now almost a perfect example of the unrestricted free market of the Internet will ruin it for everybody.  He thinks that if we let the camel of government regulation of age for using the Internet get its head under the tent, the rest of the smelly animal will come too, and politicians will find some way to prevent their political opponents from accessing voters under the age of 90 ,or something.

 

Now I'll agree that the ingenuity of bureaucrats to expand their remits beyond all reasonable bounds is impressive and worth being concerned about.  But I haven't noticed any huge federal bureaucracy springing up around the subject of restricting tobacco use, unless you count the diversion of the huge pile of money extracted from the tobacco companies as part of class-action lawsuits by smokers toward uses that have nothing to do with smoking prevention.  And that was mainly the doing of states rather than the federal government, if I recall correctly.

 

Cooke says if the federal laws proposed go into action, you would have to send your private information over the Internet every time you want to access YouTube or Facebook.  Well, I do that every time I buy something online already—not only that, I send information that will allow a crook to steal from me, and now and then it even happens.  But the banks are vigilant enough to keep credit-card fraud down to a level that seems to be tolerable enough for most people, and we haven't had some giant federal bureaucracy arise because of it.

 

I agree that it may be premature to enact a federal law in this area.  But many states are currently experimenting with similar laws, and several have already gained some experience with them.  Some reports indicate that major porn outlets on the Internet are seeing their income drop substantially.  One report cited by the website of the Southern Baptist Convention says that as a result of an age restriction passed in Louisiana, traffic to the site Pornhub from that state has dropped by 80%. 

 

That may seem like a drop in the bucket, but one of the strengths of the federal system is that each state is a little political-science lab of its own.  After another year or two, federal legislators, if they are so inclined, can take a look at the many experiments in social-media regulation concerning minors that are going on right now, and take the best ideas from the successful ones. 

 

Then, it shouldn't be that hard to craft a law that would not only restrict social-media companies from preying on minors, but would also restrict the role of the federal government in the regulatory process.  Sen. Josh Hawley's proposed bill, nicknamed MATURE (for Making Age-Verification Technology Uniform, Robust, and Effective), would have as its primary regulatory feature the power granted to parents to sue Internet companies who don't comply.  In that aspect, it resembles the Texas anti-abortion law which empowers private citizens to sue abortionists.  No giant abortion-regulation bureaucracy sprang up in Texas after that law was passed.  But a lot of abortion clinics shut down immediately, which was the desired effect.

 

Cooke says that he is going to take the steps available to a responsible parent, which he is, to ensure that his own children don't get harmed by social media.  And that is fine if you are a responsible parent.  But we have plenty of irresponsible parents too, and we should have some concern for their children, who are even more vulnerable to the harms that social media can cause than the offspring of parents who are aware of the dangers and do something about them.

 

Cooke seems to be motivated by a libertarian impulse to leave the pristine unregulated nature of the Internet alone.  But as he points out, we have already seen inappropriate involvement of the government in censoring free expression on the Internet by means of the Twitter files released by Elon Musk's intervention.  And nobody passed any laws to let that happen.

 

Granted that there is currently a shortage of wisdom in Washington, we can still hope that a few public-spirited Republicans and Democrats can cooperate (!) on a bill that would take into account the successes and failures of various state laws in this area, make sure that any Federal involvement in the matter is minimized, and still accomplish the goal:  to keep children and teenagers from suffering the very real psychic harm that social media overuse and misuse can cause. 

 

Sources:  Charles C. W. Cooke's somewhat mysteriously titled "Chesterton's Internet" (he mentions the phrase twice but otherwise doesn't explain why he associates the Internet with G. K. Chesterton, who died in 1935) appeared in the April 2024 issue of National Review, pp. 34-36.  I also referred to an article on the website of the Southern Baptist Convention at https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/the-new-state-laws-effectively-curbing-online-porn/.

Monday, March 04, 2024

Big Tech Tries to Have its First Amendment Cake and Eat It Too

 

While my headline lacks something in concision, the topic for today is anything but simple:  whether internet-based enterprises such as Amazon, Google, Tiktok, and X are free to do basically anything they want with the input their users provide, or whether the states of Texas and Florida can impose certain restrictions on content moderation.  Last week the U. S. Supreme Court heard opening oral arguments in two related cases on this topic that the Court has decided to hear together.

 

NetChoice v. Paxton pits the trade association NetChoice, which includes such heavy hitters as Amazon, Google, and X, against the Texas state gadfly and attorney general Ken Paxton, who attempted to enforce a bill that would prohibit social media companies from censoring posts except in extreme cases such as obscenity and libel.  Moody v. NetChoice concerns a law that was passed in Florida at the urging of Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent social media firms from "de-platforming" a political candidate actively running for office.  The lawsuits arising from NetChoice's objections to what it sees as restrictions on its members' First Amendments freedom of speech have percolated through the federal courts and ended up at the Supreme Court last Monday.

 

There are two extreme positions that mark the boundaries of this debate.  One extreme is taken by the state legislatures, which is that large internet-based firms, including but not limited to social-media outfits such as X and TikTok, are used so universally that they should be considered as "common carriers."  A common carrier, in legal parlance, is a service that is so essential to modern life that it must accept customers and their activities on a basis limited only by common-sense rules.  The classic common carrier was the old Ma Bell system back when all you could do with a phone was call Aunt Maude.  As long as you paid your monthly bill, you could say absolutely anything you wanted to say, and Ma Bell wouldn't stop you.  And anybody who can muster up the cash for a bus ticket can ride the bus.  Similarly, the state bills object to censorship, de-platforming, and other ways that social media companies either emphasize or obscure certain users depending on what they are saying, because the state laws tend to view them as common carriers.

 

The other extreme is taken by NetChoice, which views its members as valiant warriors protecting their own freedom of speech as well as that of their users.  Their classic analogy is the old-fashioned hot-type newspaper, back when all you could do with the paper was line the bottom of the birdcage—after reading it, of course.  Nobody presumed to tell the editorial-page editor what letters he could or could not include in the paper, and so no state law should tell X which tweets to suppress or encourage, or leave alone.  They are private firms and it's their business what they do with their content, not the states' business. 

 

A report on the first day's arguments by the Electronic Privacy Informatiion Center (EPIC) indicates that the Supreme Court justices are not enthusiastic about either end of this spectrum.  In particular, they seem to think that NetChoice is being more than a little hypocritical because of how it has used a law called Section 230.

 

Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act gives NetChoice members immunity from prosecution for libel for what any of their users say, in this sentence:  "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."  The word "publisher" echoes our exemplary newspaper editor, and Section 230 lets X say, in effect, "Man, we didn't write or publish or say that.  Our crazy user said that, and you can't blame us for what he said."  Section 230 protection is one of the carefully guarded legal jewels of the NetChoice empire, and flocks of lawyers appear whenever anyone threatens it.

 

At least two Supreme Court justices perceived that NetChoice is trying to have its free-speech cake by defeating the state laws limiting their content-moderation actions, and eat it too by claiming innocence when someone posts something objectionable and a NetChoice member claims immunity under Section 230.  At one point, Justice Gorsuch asked, "So it's speech for the purposes of the First Amendment, your speech, your editorial control, but when we get to Section 230, your submission is that that isn't your speech?"  And at another point, Justice Alito said, "It's your message when you want to escape state regulation, but it's not your message when you want to escape liability under state tort law." 

 

It's anybody's guess what the Court will decide in these cases, but indications are that neither NetChoice nor the states will get everything they want.  My own view is that social-media firms, by catering to the lower instincts of the human mind and heart, have wrought incalculable damage to the political and social structures of not only the U. S. but many other countries as well.  And especially when the government begins to "assist" social-media firms in deciding what is free speech and should be left alone or promoted, and what is "disinformation" and should be de-emphasized or suppressed, we have traveled a good part of the way down a slippery slope to something akin to the old Soviet Union, or the present Peoples' Republic of China, where everything you say and do is monitored and assessed and has consequences that can be quite dire if you go against what the government wants you to do. 

 

The Texas and Florida laws are a first step toward opposing this trend, and NetChoice's actions opposing them is exactly what you would expect a bully to do if someone challenges his dominance.  Fortunately, the federal structure of our government is still functioning, although seriously damaged, and I hope that the justices' decisions in these cases will clip the wings of an industry which, Icarus-like, is flying way too close to the sun.

 

Sources:  I referred to an editorial by Jennifer Huddleston in the Mar. 1, 2024 edition of the Austin American-Statesman, a blog post on the EPIC website at https://epic.org/four-key-takeaways-from-the-netchoice-v-moody-and-paxton-oral-arguments/, and the Wikipedia articles on NetChoice and Section 230.

Monday, February 26, 2024

A Tale of Two Companies: Information Unlimited and Edmund Optics

 

I'm going to address a branch of engineering or business ethics that you don't see discussed very often.  The question it answers is:  what obligation does a company founder have to see that the business continues after his or her passing?  To help us think about this question, I'm going to give two examples at opposite extremes:  Information Unlimited and Edmund Optics.

 

In November of 2008, I ordered three high-voltage capacitors from a company I'd never heard of before:  Information Unlimited.  The company's website had an edgy vibe and featured high-voltage equipment and components that are hard to find in one place.  Whoever was running the site clearly had fun in their work:  many of the items appealed to the teenage-mad-scientist types and were more like semi-safe toys than serious equipment. 

 

Over the years, I ordered hundreds of dollars' worth of supplies and devices from their website, which was simply www.amazing1.com.  The most expensive item I ever bought was a 40,000-volt DC power supply which cost about $500.  The main reason I favored Information Unlimited over more orthodox suppliers was cost.  You can buy similar equipment at a number of other places, but for that kind of unit you can't touch the standard suppliers for under $3500 or so. 

 

The expensive units mount in a standard relay rack and come equipped with all kinds of aluminum enclosures and safety interlocks and so on.  The Information Unlimited unit was made out of a piece of PVC pipe wired to a plastic box that you had to be pretty careful with.  All high-voltage equipment can be fatal if you're not careful, so the people at Information Unlimited just assumed their users would be careful with their units.  And I was, mostly, until one day I overloaded it and it broke.  I mailed it back and they fixed it for less than half of what I paid for it, and only in a couple of weeks.

 

The other day, I wanted something from Information Unlimited, but their website had vanished.  It turns out that their "resident genius,"  as one chatroom called him, was Robert Iannini, who had passed away just a few months before.  A Wired  profile of him from 2012 described a teenager so intent on experimenting with explosives that he blew off his left hand in high school and never quite graduated.  But he talked his way into Northeastern University, graduated with an electrical engineering degree, and in the early 1960s invented the bug zappers that you now see everywhere in restaurants and grocery stores.  With the $60,000 he got from that invention, he founded Information Unlimited and sold blaster guns, Tesla coils and a series of project books with titles like Electronic Gadgets for the Evil Genius.

 

And that's how Iannini made a living right up until he died on April 3, 2023 at the age of 85.  Sometime between then and August, his company folded—the website disappeared and no one on the Internet seems to know anything about what happened to it.  Whatever good talents Iannini had for running a business, planning his succession was not one of them.  Not only hobbyists, but serious scientists on a budget, plasma physicists, and educators around the world are going to miss the products that only Information Unlimited carried.

 

Back in 1942, a man named Norman W. Edmund took out an ad in Popular Photography for his company Edmund Salvage, which sold factory-second lenses for amateur telescope makers.  Following the end of World War II, the market was flooded with surplus military gear, including expensive-to-make but now dirt-cheap optics, and Edmund capitalized on this availability and moved his operation to Barrington, New Jersey.  Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Edmund Scientific catalog was a kind of milder-mannered pre-Internet version of Information Unlimited, offering scientific kits, toys, and inexpensive surplus items for both hobbyists and professionals.

 

The firm turned a significant corner in 1970 when Norman retired and his son Robert Edmund became CEO.  By 1984, the optics end of the business had become so large that Robert made it a separate division, keeping Edmund Scientific as an educational and hobby sales organization with a retail store in Barrington.  Over the next fifteen years, Edmund Optics expanded globally, adding sales and manufacturing facilities in Germany, China, Korea, Taiwan, and elsewhere. 

 

In 1998, Marisa Edmund, a granddaughter of Norman, joined the company, and she is now CEO of a worldwide original-equipment-manufacturer supplier of state-of-the-art cutting-edge optics.  It is still privately held, and its market share is miniscule, but it is a good example of an extremely specialized niche-market firm which, while perhaps insignificant from an economic point of view, is a key player in many specialty firms' supply chains.

 

Character is a hard thing to pin down, and anything I say about Robert Iannini should be tempered by the goodwill I hold for his memory and for the many useful and cost-effective items I bought from his firm. 

 

But the kind of personality it takes to start a company is often different than the personality or character needed to let it grow in ways that will serve a wider public.  The fact that Information Unlimited was unable to outlive its founder by more than a few months tells me that it was in some sense an extension of Iannini's personality.  Some leaders are unable to change the way they do things to adapt to changing market conditions or the need for competent staff who can run and even grow the business in your absence. 

 

Clearly, this was something that Norman Edmund understood, as he stepped aside in favor of his son Robert when Norman was only 55.  Not every founder has offspring who are interested in the family business, but Norman was fortunate in this regard, and now the firm he began continues to serve thousands of customers around the world.  I wish I could say the same for Information Unlimited, but Iannini's legacy will live on in the Tesla coils and high-voltage power supplies he made.  Still, I kind of wish I'd bought a blaster gun while I had the chance.

 

Sources:  I referred to the 2013 Wired profile of Robert Iannini at https://www.wired.com/2013/01/information-unlimited/, Iannini's obituary at https://www.smith-heald.com/obituaries/Robert-E-Iannini?obId=27660790, a blog mentioning the end of Information Unlimited at https://www.eevblog.com/forum/reviews/what-ever-happened-to-amazing1-com-(aka-information-unlimited)/, Norman Edmund's obituary at https://www.cbsnews.com/philadelphia/news/n-w-edmund-founder-of-iconic-south-jersey-scientifics-firm-dead-at-95/, and the Edmund Optics timeline at https://www.edmundoptics.com/company/about-us/80years/.